The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

View all posts

School Bus Strike Hits Our Most Vulnerable Children

Jan. 21, 2013 | Beth Arky

As the New York City school bus strike enters Week 2, it's clear that the 54,000 special-needs children and their already overtaxed parents are bearing the brunt of the walkout. It's important to understand that for many of these families, the school bus is not just a ride to school. It's a crucial piece of a support system for kids who can't just jump on the subway—in fact, they may not be able to walk—and parents who can't hold down jobs unless their children are in reliable, competent, and caring hands.

It's not unusual that the only appropriate school for a child with complex developmental delays and resulting behavior problems might be an hour from home, so thousands of parents are missing work to endure long, arduous commutes, or keeping their kids home. But the personal cost doesn't end there. As Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes in a candid and thoughtful piece in The Nation ("A Good Matron Is Hard to Find"), children and parents alike are also missing the continuity and calm provided by experienced drivers and matrons now walking the picket line. 

Lee, whose 13-year-old son, J, has serious medical challenges and developmental disabilities, including autism, has come to depend on J's excellent driver and matron: "Our son indeed relies on them to be consistent, calm, patient and firm."

And that's not easy. "On bad days, our son can bite, head-butt, scream or pinch—fairly typical behaviors for autism, but they can be shocking when one first encounters them," Lee writes. And because of J's gastrointestinal problems, he can have toileting issues. "It can be difficult not to take such assaults personally or want to retaliate," she notes, "which is why experience and maturity needs to be taken into account."

While experience doesn't guarantee expertise and sensitivity, Lee says it improves the odds; J's driver and matron each have worked with special-needs children for 18 years. Like many parents, Lee considers them valued players on J's team: "We all work together to keep our son calm, but when he's not, they know what do to. No amount of training and video-watching can prepare a driver for what it's actually like navigating New York City traffic with the bedlam of one (or more) children throwing a tantrum behind her." She also applauds her driver's "great communication skills with parents; she calls when she needs our input on our son's behaviors or medical issues. She and the matron make our son feel safe, which in turn helps us to feel safe."

As the city and the unions continue their stalemate and questions arise about the cost of bussing special-needs students, Lee brings it down to the most human level: It's the children, "who have little voice and are often ignored or scorned in society," who are losing the most. Those who continue to attend school may be missing hours because of long commutes, while parents who are keeping their children home worry that they may regress as they miss out on the routine, socialization and therapies school provides.

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, another autism mom, explains in an open letter to Mayor Bloomberg and Local 1181 why 7-year-old Norrin, whose school is 22 miles from the family's Bronx apartment, spent the third day of the strike with her at her job as an administrative assistant, rather than at school. She writes that she has already used up two vacation days staying home with him, her husband, a court officer, can't take time off; and she needs the rest of her days for doctor's appointments and IEP meetings. She also needs to keep her job, and she's worried about that. "This is beyond a stressful situation," she writes. We hope both the union and the mayor understand that.

Leave a Comment 3
View All Comments (3)

Please SIGN IN or REGISTER to post a comment.

jenn_choi · Jan 23 2013 Report

My family is suffering immensely from this madness. As Marie Myung-Ok Lee discussed in her article, the school bus is part of the calm and continuity of the children's day. I am so overwhelmed taking two kids to school that I barely have time to really study my options vis-a-vis getting car service. The wording is vague. Moreover, I have two kids going to two different schools. I went home after dropping them off, that would mean crossing a bridge EIGHT times a day. I'm skeptical that I will even get any reimbursement at all. I have enough of such complaints to make with insurance companies. I don't know what to think about the strike except to say that this system has shown many flaws already and I can personally attest to that!!! This is not the first time I had to take over my children's commute to school. (Unwillingly) Also- Emotionally fragile children depend on experienced professionals to keep them safe and be ready for a productive day both at home and at school. Jenn Choi, editor,,

sammy · Jan 22 2013 Report

Regarding the open letter to the mayor from "Norrin's Mom": It's sad to hear that children like Norrin are being affected like this. It's shameful that Bloomberg is refusing to negotiate and/or compromise in order to resolve this. Although Norrin's mom mentioned that she herself doesn't have job protection, it's important to see the other side of this situation. I am sure she would not just allow for her employer one day to fire her after years of dedicated service for no reason, causing her to not only loose her livelihood but her pension as well. This is exactly what will be happening to these workers in June. Before blaming these workers we need to put ourselves in their position to understand why they reluctantly decided they had no choice but to strike. They too have families to feed and some even have autistic children of their own.

hfreeman17 · Jan 22 2013 Report

Thank you for this piece. Our son (treated at CMI) has to go 23 miles from home to school with a driver and matron we have come to trust and like. Now, because of the strike by the ATU and the odd DOE reimbursement plan that covers only taxis and car services (someone smell TLC's bad breath here?), our options are (1) my wife takes a car service there and stays within walking distance of the school all day; (2) she takes a car service once for drop-off and once for pick-up but we pay for 2 legs of the journey when the "child is not in the car" (per DOE); (3) we pay for all of a car rental or Zipcar; or (4) our son stays home. So far, he has stayed home one day, she took him two days (who knows if/when the DOE will reimburse us), and today he is (mercifully) home sick.

Please help us improve the Symptom Checker!

Click here to share your thoughts about using the tool.